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Silver Creek, Texas
Sheriff Grayson Ryland couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching him.
He slid his hand over the Smith & Wesson in his leather shoulder holster and stepped from his patrol truck. He lifted his head, listening, and glanced around the thick woods that were practically smothering the yellow cottage. The front door and curtains were closed.
No sign of the cottage's owner, Eve Warren.
No sign of anyone for that matter, but just twenty minutes earlier Eve had called his office to report that she had seen someone suspicious in the area.
Grayson knew this part of the county like the back of his hand. Along with his brothers, he had fished in the creek at the bottom of the hill. He'd camped these woods. There were a lot of places to duck out of sight
Plenty of memories, too.
That required a deep breath, and he cursed himself for having to take it.
The front door opened, and he spotted Eve. She was a five-foot-six-inch memory of a different kind. She'd obviously known he was there. Maybe that was the reason his brain was firing warnings on all cylinders.
"Grayson," she said, her tongue flickering over her bottom lip. "You came."
That nervous little tongue flicker and the too-hopeful look in her misty blue eyes riled him. "You called the sheriff's office and asked for me," he reminded her. "You said you thought you saw someone."
"Of course." She nodded, swallowed hard. "But I wasn't sure you'd come."
Neither was he, especially since he was neck-deep in a murder investigation, but when he'd gotten her message, he'd decided not to send a deputy, that he would be the one to personally respond.
Well, respond to the call anyway.
Not to the woman.
Not ever again.
It'd been over sixteen years since he'd last seen Eve. She'd been standing in a doorway then, too. Her blond hair had been well past her shoulders back in those days, but it was short now and fashionably rumpled. The last decade and a half had settled nicely on her curvy body.
Something he decided not to notice.
Since his eyes and body seemed to have a different idea about that not-noticing part, Grayson got down to business.
"You reported someone suspicious?" he prompted. "I did." She scrubbed her hands down the sides of her pearl-gray dress. The cold December wind caught the hem, making it flutter around the tops of her knees. "I was about to call you anyway about something else and then I saw him. A man. He was down by the creek."
Grayson lifted his shoulder and wondered why the heck she'd intended to call him, but he didn't ask. "Could have been a neighbor." Even though there weren't any close ones to the Warren cottage.
"I don't think it was a neighbor," Eve insisted. "I got a bad feeling when I spotted him."
Yeah. Grayson knew all about bad feelings. The one he had about this situation was getting worse with each passing moment.
"I didn't want to take any chances," she continued. "What with the murder you had here a few days ago. How are you handling that, by the way?"
She probably hadn't meant to irritate him with that question, but she did. Hell, no matter what she said, she would irritate him. But Grayson didn't want anyone, including Eve, questioning his ability to handle a murder investigation, even if it was only the third one in his twelve years as sheriff of Silver Creek.
"I heard you haven't identified the body, or the killer," she added.
"Not yet." And Grayson got back on target. "You have any idea who this person was you saw?"
Eve shook her head. "No. But for the past couple of days I've been getting hang-up calls at my condo in San Antonio. And there's been a time or two when I thought someone was following me. Nothing specific. Just a feeling. It was one of the reasons I decided to come out to the cottage. So I could get away."
Well, that explained that. Eve had inherited the cottage from her grandmother eighteen months ago, but to the best of Grayson's knowledge, this was her first visit to the place. And she hadn't just come to relax. She'd planned on calling him.
Again, he didn't ask. He kept this conversation focused on the job he'd been called out to do.
"Any reason you know of why someone would follow you or make those hang-up calls?" he asked.
Another head shake. "I've been under a lot of stress lately," she admitted. "The job. And some personal stuff. Until I saw the man, I kept telling myself that it was all in my head. But he was real, Grayson."
He mentally groaned at the way she said his name. It was intimate, the way she used to murmur it after one of their scalding hot kissing sessions.
He glanced at the woods, then the creek. "I'll have a look around," Grayson let her know. "But if you're worried, you probably shouldn't be staying out here alone."
He turned to have that look around.
"Wait," Eve called out. "Don't go. I wanted to ask about your family. How are your brothers?"
He had four living brothers. Four sets of news, updates and troubles. Since it would take the better part of an hour to catch her up on everything, Grayson settled for saying, "They're all fine."
Grayson turned again, but again Eve stopped him.
"Even Nate?" she questioned. "I heard his wife was killed a few months ago."
Yeah. That was all part of the troubles. The worst of them. "Nate's coping." But Grayson knew that wasn't true. If Nate didn't have his baby daughter to care for, his brother wouldn't make it out of bed each morning. Grayson was still trying to figure out how to take care of that.
"And the ranch?" Eve continued. "I read somewhere that the ranch won a big award for your quarter horses."
Fed up with the small talk, Grayson decided to put an end to this. Chitchat was an insult at this stage of the game. However, when he looked back at her, he saw that she had her hands clenched around the door frame. Her knuckles were turning white.
Grayson cursed under his breath. "Okay. What's wrong?" But he didn't just ask. He went closer so he could see inside the cottage to make sure someone wasn't standing behind her, holding her at gunpoint. Because Eve wasn't the white-knuckle type. He had never known anything to scare her.
The place was small so he was able to take in most of it with one sweeping glance. There was no one in the living and eating area, and the loft/bedroom was empty, too.
Grayson looked her straight in the eyes. "Eve, are you all right?"
She hesitated and nibbled some more on her lip. "I really did see someone about a half hour ago, I swear, and he ran away when he spotted me."
Since that sounded like the beginning of an explanation that might clarify the real reason for her call, Grayson just stood there and waited for the rest of it.
"Could you come in?" Eve finally said. "I need to talk to you."
Oh, hell. This couldn't be good. "Talk?" he challenged.
He was about to remind her that it was long over between them, that they had no past issues to discuss, but she kept motioning for him to come in.
"Eve," he warned.
"Please." Her voice was all breath and no sound.
Grayson cursed that please and the look in her eyes. He knew that look. He'd seen it when she was thirteen and had learned her mother was dying from bone cancer. He'd seen it again sixteen years ago when on her twenty-first birthday she'd stood in the doorway of the ranch and demanded a commitment from him or else.
Because he'd had no choice, Grayson had answered or else.
And Eve had walked out.
Now, Grayson walked in. She stepped back so he could enter the cottage, and she shut the door behind him. He didn't take off his Stetson or his jacket because he hoped he wouldn't be here that long.
It was warm inside, thanks to the electric heater she had going near the fireplace. No fire, though. And it would have been a perfect day for it since the outside temp was barely forty degrees.
With a closer look, Grayson could see the place was in perfect order. Definitely no signs of any kind of struggle or hostage situation. There was no suitcase that he could spot, but Eve's purse was on the coffee table, and her camera and equipment bag were on the small kitchen counter. Several photographs were spread out around the bag. Since Eve was a newspaper photographer, that wasn't out of the ordinary, either.
"The pictures," she mumbled following his gaze. "I was trying to work while I waited for you."
Trying. And likely failing from the way they were scattered around. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Yes," she readily admitted.
Surprised, and more worried than he wanted to be, he turned around to face her. "Trouble with the law?"
"I wish," Eve mumbled. She groaned softly and threaded her fingers through both sides of her hair. That stretched her dress over her breasts and gave Grayson a reminder he didn't want or need.
He'd been attracted to Eve for as long as he could remember. But he refused to let that attraction play into whatever the hell this was.
"Trouble at work?" he tried next.
She lifted her shoulder but answered, "No."
He glanced at the photos on the table again.
"I took those at a charity fundraising rodeo in San Antonio," she explained.
So, they were work, but judging from the casual way she'd mentioned them, they weren't the source of the worry in her eyes. "Look, I could play twenty questions and ask about a stalker, an ex or whatever. But let's save ourselves some time and you just tell me what you have to say."
She nodded, paused, nodded again. "It's personal. And it has to do with you. I need to ask you something."
Grayson braced himself for some kind of rehashing of the past. After all, he was thirty-eight now, and Eve was thirty-seven. Hardly kids. And since neither of them had ever married, maybe this was her trip back down memory lane.
Well, he didn't want to take this trip with her.
"I've been having some medical problems," she continued. But then paused again.
That latest pause caused Grayson to come up with some pretty bad conclusions. Conclusions he didn't want to say aloud, but his first thought was cancer or some other terminal disease. Hell.
Had Eve come home to die?
"What's wrong?" he settled for repeating.
She shook her head, maybe after seeing the alarm in his eyes. "No. Not that kind of medical problem."
Grayson silently released the breath he'd been holding.
"I'm, uh, going through, well, menopause," she volunteered.
Of all the things Grayson had expected her to say, that wasn't one of them. "Aren't you too young for that?"
"Yes. Premature menopause." She swallowed hard again. "There's no way to stop it."
Well, it wasn't a cancer death sentence like her mother's, but Grayson could understand her concern.
"So, is that why you're here, to try to come to terms with it?"
He'd asked the question in earnest, but he checked his watch. Talking with him wouldn't help Eve come to terms with anything, and he had work to do. That included a look around the place and then he had to convince her to head back to San Antonio. It was obvious she was too spooked and worried to be out in the woods all alone.
"I don't have much time," she said before he could speak. "That's why I came to Silver Creek today. And that's why I'll need your answer right away. I know this isn't fair, but if you say no, I'll have to try to find someone else though I'm not sure I can." She didn't stop long enough to draw breath, and her words bled together. "Still, I'll understand if you want to say no, but Grayson, I'm praying you won't"
"What are you talking about?" he finally said, speaking right over her.
Now, Eve stopped and caught on to the back of the chair. "Perhaps you should sit down for this."
The rushed frantic pace was gone, but her eyes told him this particular storm was far from being over.
"I'd rather stand," he let her know.
"No. Trust me on this. You need to be sitting."
That took him several steps beyond just being curious, and Grayson sank into the chair across from her. Eve sat as well, facing him. Staring at him. And nibbling on her lip.
"I'm not sure how to say this," she continued, "so I'm just going to put it out there."
But she still didn't do that. Eve opened her mouth, closed it and stared at him.
"Grayson," she finally said and looked him straight in the eyes. "I need you to get me pregnant. Today."